Church Accuses Town Of Discrimination

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When Dan Green attended the Payson Town Council meeting last Thursday, he found it ironic that it began with a prayer by a local pastor and that a presentation by the YMCA (Young Men's Christian Association) was on the agenda.

Green, who is a pastor for the Potter's House Christian Fellowship Church, was recently turned down by Parks and Recreation Director Bill Schwind when he applied to hold a series of events at Rumsey Park aimed at troubled youths who hang out at the skate park there. He was at the meeting to ask the council to reconsider portions of the town code that he believed constituted religious discrimination.

"What if the Salvation Army or the American Red Cross or the YMCA, which are all Christian outreach ministries, were silenced in their birthing stages?" Green asked the council. "Who would want to deny the sick or the ill a physician? I am offering a helping Christian hand to the troubled youth of this community, but I am denied."

Green, who moved to Payson a month ago from Prescott Valley to start a church, was initially granted permission to hold a series of "youth movie nights" every other Friday evening throughout the summer at Ramada 5, which is adjacent to the skate park. His check for $220 for renting the Ramada was accepted by parks personnel.

But a few days later, Schwind told him the approval was being revoked.

"In the conversation, he repeatedly said the town of Payson was not a church, and I repeated to him the town of Payson is not sponsoring the event," Green said. "The church is sponsoring it, so that negates any separation of church and state (issue)."

Green has a problem with two sections of the town code relating to use of park facilities. One prohibits religious ceremonies and "continuous use" religious services or political activities unless Schwind issues a permit, but two pages later another section allows "continuous use of facilities by clubs or enterprises."

"So if you're the Boy Scouts, I guess they're a club so no problem," Green said. "We're a church; we're going to get denied."

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Dan Green is already on a first name basis with many of the young people who hang out at the skate park. "I know the lifestyle and I know what it leads to and I know I could bring great help," he said.

Not only is town code discriminatory, Green believes, but it also gives the parks and recreation director too much discretionary power.

"A Christian ministry or whatever that he likes he can say yes to, but something along this line that he doesn't like and now he says no," Green said. "That gives this man a whole lot of authority."

Green said his meeting with Schwind was "contentious" and that the parks director made comments that led him to believe the revocation was discriminatory:

"(He said,) ‘Well my church doesn't feel the need to go out there and do that.' At one point I told the director, ‘We do not live in Communist China," Green said. "This is the United States of America. This is what we were founded on.

"I'm not asking if you agree or you like it. This is a public park."

After being rebuffed by Schwind, Green decided to take the issue up with the council. When he turned in a public comment speaker request form before the meeting, he said he was approached by Town Manager Fred Carpenter.

"He comes up to me and says, ‘Perhaps we could handle this a little more diplomatically. If there were problems you should have come to me first.'

"You're saying let's be diplomatic about it," Green responded, "but the director wasn't diplomatic about it."

Green said he told Carpenter he preferred to go ahead and address the council.

"I said, ‘I'm here, I'm prepared, I have three minutes, I'm going to go ahead and talk.'"

But Green also decided to contact the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a conservative watchdog organization.

"I sent them the town code and everything and they immediately called me back and said, ‘They don't have a leg to stand on,'" Green said. "They said the town code is unconstitutional; there's no way you can discriminate against religious services but then offer ‘clubs and enterprises' signed agreements."

David A. Cortman, senior associate counsel for the ACLJ sent a letter to the town to that effect. Dated Feb. 25, it said in part:

"Mr. Schwind proceeded to deny the majority of the dates based on your Town Code that prohibits ‘religious ceremonies' and ‘continuous use of park and recreation facilities for religious services' unless a permit is issued by the Parks and Recreation Director. Nevertheless, the Code later states that ‘continuous use of facilities for clubs and enterprises shall be permitted through signed agreements.' This blatant discrimination against religious uses is unconstitutional."

Cortman also requested copies of all policies, rules and regulations governing use of town parks. Green said the ACLJ will push the issue as far as necessary.

"This is the initial stage," he said. "The context of the letter is that hopefully this can be resolved, but if not they will hop on it."

Green, who claimed to be a recovered alcohol and drug addict, doesn't understand why the town doesn't jump at his offer to help with a serious problem.

"Young kids these days are making the most important decisions of their lives and when I was that age I wasn't making good ones -- alcohol, marijuana, LSD, hallucinogenics," he said. "A great percentage of the ministry we're a part of are ex-addicts, ex-alcoholics and we've had great success in reaching out to those that fall into that category."

Green, who is 38, admits his message is Christian-based, but said most recovery programs are.

"The message is, ‘God loves you and if you can put your faith in him....,'" he said. "Part of Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program is some faith in God, and so are most recovery programs. Ours is very similar."

Since the town has allowed some churches to hold services and other events at parks, Green wondered if a double standard is being imposed.

"I guess smaller towns can just get very comfortable; they can get in a certain mode of operation. They open that town council meeting with a prayer every two weeks, and perhaps they should add, ‘Pastor Green, you're the answer to our prayers,'" he said.

Carpenter and Schwind declined to comment based on the advice of Town Attorney Sam Streichman, who did not return phone calls. Cortman also did not return phone calls.

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